The United Soccer League and FC Harlem have entered a partnership to create a new youth-to-pro pathway, through a USL Academy Team and future USL League One professional expansion franchise, it was announced on Wednesday.

FC Harlem L.I.O.NS (Leaders In Our Neighborhoods) has earned recognition for its work with inner-city youth and development of leaders on and off the field through soccer.

Founded in 1991, FC Harlem has provided affordable soccer and off-field enrichment programs for more than 10,000 young people from underserved neighborhoods in Harlem, the Bronx and Washington Heights. The organization is led by executive director Irv Smalls.

FC Harlem will field boys’ and girls’ USL Academy teams as early as 2024, and the partnership includes the exclusive rights to launch a USL League One expansion club by 2026.

“The growth, impact and global relevancy of professional soccer in the United States over the last 20 years is remarkable,” Smalls said in a statement. “The inner cities are cultural centers of innovation, charisma and the desire for excellence. Now is the time for its inclusion in the professional soccer pathway.

“Not since the 1923 Harlem Rens basketball team has a professional sports franchise called Harlem home. The United Soccer League’s community first model is the ideal platform for FC Harlem to build this transformative project and provide another source of pride for one of the world’s most iconic neighborhoods.”

FC Harlem will launch the LIONS PRO project which will prepare youth of color from the inner city for professional careers in soccer both on and off the field.

“This exciting partnership with the USL is groundbreaking for FC Harlem and our community,” Smalls said. “Too often, players with the ability, commitment, character, and passion to go professional must leave their neighborhood to pursue their dreams. By working with the USL, FC Harlem will offer a close-to-home alternative for these individuals to play professional soccer and get experience in careers beyond the field.” Opportunities for committed youth to have internships within the USL infrastructure including at FC Harlem is vital for them to have a positive role on professional soccer’s continued growth in the United States. Whether it is exposure to coaching, data analytics, finance, or management, LIONS PRO will prepare future leaders in soccer.”

Added USL COO and Chief Real Estate Officer Justin Papadakis: “Creativity, passion, culture, and history make Harlem a world-famous neighborhood. Through FC Harlem, Irv Smalls has dedicated more than 15 years to the Harlem community and developed a fantastic vision for soccer’s future there. All of us at the USL are excited to work with Irv and others to bring this vision to fruition and create another reason for people to love Harlem.”